How to frame frame-story stories – Top Five pointers!

Xzibit-1001NightsI have been pinged1 a few times lately by fans who are a little miffed2 that I rescinded publication of The Ligan of the Disomus so I could finish the book that precedes it in the Observer’s Casebook series. Why is the first book taking so long? Part of the explanation is that I’ve been working on other projects, including the 2nd edition of On The Head Of A Pin, a few serial pieces, and bits of theater (including a short play that was spontaneously performed at a recent Submit 10 event!).

But, the core reason is that The Crow and the Kinnebeck is a nested tale, otherwise known as a frame story or “story within a story.” A writer has to be extra careful spinning this sort of yarn. Let me describe the dynamics of the frame story, then offer a Top Five list of pointers for writers ambitious enough to attempt a complex nested narrative.

You might immediately think of The Princess Bride when you think of frame stories, but the form is an old one, perhaps best known classically in One Thousand and One Nights and The Canterbury Tales yet also reaching back to ancient works like the Mahabharata, the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and the parables in the Gospels.

Often, like with The Princess Bride and the Odyssey, the nesting is simple: the frame story is about someone telling the nested story to someone else.3

Sometimes however, like in The Canterbury Tales, the larger story has several smaller stories nested within it, and in the most complex frame tales, like One Thousand and One Nights, the nested stories themselves have stories nested inside of them, like Russian matryoshka dolls, often down to several levels.

Kinnebeck4 is a complex nested tale like that, and when you’re dragging readers through multiple story layers, you have to be careful lest they get lost. The nested stories need to resonate with the framing story to keep readers oriented, but without being so similar that readers become confused about which story is which.

Keeping one’s bearings is much easier when reading (or watching) a single-frame story, where the nested tale is used to comment on the larger story or—as in the Odyssey—to explain “how we got here.” This is particularly true because the two parts of a single-frame tale tend to be distinct from each other in a dualistic way. For example, the inner tale could be a memory or history, in other words the past being recalled in the frame story’s “present,” which is the Odyssey‘s technique. Or, the inner tale could be parabolic or fantasy while the outer tale is “real life,” as in The Princess Bride. Two layers of fiction set up like this, as polar complements, almost magnetically cling to one another.5

With multi-layered frame stories, however, the writer’s task gets exponentially trickier.

Not only do the relationships between the inner and outer stories multiply with each new layer, but the potential to have memories inside of fictions inside of histories inside of “real life” can really complicate matters. With no easy polar opposites to pair up, the writer has to use theme, language, and genre to sew the layers together, keeping them distinct yet harmonious.

In Kinnebeck, the frame story is the tale of a backwoodsman named William Ochsard, who comes to the corrupt seaport of Lemaigne to avenge himself upon the man who murdered his family. The first layer of nested stories is made up of a Security Corps officer (the narrator) recounting his cases in Lemaigne leading up Ochsard’s arrival, showing how his relationship with the residents of the city developed over the preceding decade and mirrored the broken life of the backwoodsman himself. Inside each of these case files, anecdotes about the lives of the characters—and background on Lemaigne and its world—layer the story even further.

Memories and histories inside accounts of the past inside the main, “present” story. And, everything has to cohere in part and whole, theme and narrative.



5 Anchor the opening and closing of each nested tale within its frame story.

It isn’t enough to say, “And then the king began to tell me a story…” The story the king is telling has to have something to do with what’s happening around the king at the time, not necessarily so it makes sense for him to start rattling off a tale (after all, he could be a mad king who spins off into story for no good reason) but primarily so that the reader steps down from the frame tale into the nested story instead of being dumped harshly over the brink. Even with a mad king’s ramblings, this should be true: “One of the maids squealed and jumped, revealing the jester’s huge gray frog standing guard over the empty teacups. The king giggled and began raving about his uncle, the frog-duke of Pondwater Shire, who (of course) did not exist…”

For a more concrete example, in Kinnebeck one nested tale begins with the narrator sitting on a dock trying (and failing) to catch a fish. In order to transition smoothly into this account, the narrator starts telling it when he first steps out onto the dock in the larger, framing story. The nested tale also ends at dockside, bringing the whole cycle around and setting us back into the frame story’s present.

4 Develop the same themes in each nest.

When you dive into a nested tale, and even deeper into the story within a story within the story, there should be a purpose to the nesting beyond just that it’s a convenient point in the narrative to tale another tale. This goes beyond No. 5’s advice to anchor the nested tale in the plot details; it means that the symbolic, narrative, or character elements of the framing tale should be developed inside the nesting tale.

The simplest technique (and one that actually causes nested tales to appear in fiction naturally) is to have the smaller story explain the situation, appearance, motivation, or behavior of the characters and places in the bigger story. When the detective shrinks from taking an arson fraud case, a nested back-story about a childhood house fire illuminates his behavior. The little hill in the middle of Mergildo’s farm is bare and rocky, and a nested tale could reveal that soldiers burned the woods down while sweeping the countryside for guerrillas. If the Knight Vermilion has three parallel scars on his forehead and a fierce hatred of Kesland, the tale of when he was triply taunted by a Kesling swordsman’s swipes would nest nicely as an explanation.

But, the nested story can also develop deeper themes through common symbolism (What do the jester’s frog and the king’s imaginary frog-uncle represent?) or, as we are about to see, by using mirroring techniques.

3 Use character mirroring.

Character mirroring is a fantastic way to develop theme, but also can work independently simply to anchor nested tales together with characters that are reminiscent of each other.  A thief trying to convince a sheriff to let him go could tell a story about another thief and another sheriff, with roughly similar but (if you’re a good writer) critically distinct moral details. The important thing with mirroring is that the two characters should be alike, not not quite identical: the difference is the real point, and a good writer should keep this in mind to keep the mirroring effective and sharp.

I say “character mirroring” for a reason. I avoid the term “mirror characters,” even though it’s common in writing advice, because I believe that characters should exist in their own right, not merely to serve a function, and mirroring is only one narrative function a character can play. Sure, there may be incidental characters who are mere functionaries (like the thief’s thief in the example) but, as a rule, characters are more important than functions.

How have I used character mirroring? In Kinnebeck, I use the characters in the main story about William Ochsard, including members of his family and the man who murdered them, to contrast with the residents of Lemaigne whom the narrator introduces in the nested stories that happened before Ochsard shows up. For example, Ochsard himself is unforgiving yet willing to bear the physical and spiritual consequences of his vengeance, while the monk Frer Jacob is forgiving yet escapist and a bit undisciplined. When the nested tales eventually collapse chronologically into the framing tale, and these two characters finally meet, the clash is immediate and electrical.

2 Keep it simple wherever you can.

By their very nature, frame stories are more complex than a straightforward narrative. So, when and where you can keep it simple, do so. For example, note how simple the framing tale of The Princess Bride is: the scene never even changes. The nested story is more complex, but still very (and virtuously) simple.

When I decided that Kinnebeck should be a frame story, I juggled the order of the nested stories several ways before deciding that the best way to insert them was just to keep them in chronological order so that they lead up naturally to the overall story’s “present day.”

No need to add complexity where it’s not necessary.

1 Don’t be afraid to be heavy-handed.

It doesn’t hurt to hit the reader over the head with the notion that the nested story and framing story are connected thematically. They’ll need to orient themselves, and astute readers will be looking for milestones and way-markers, narrative landmarks by which they can keep their compasses true while descending and ascending the layers. The simplest way is to occasionally hop out of the nested tale to have the frame story character comment on it.

However, another way (which I am using in Kinnebeck) is through titling. For example, the chapter where we learn of Ochsard’s murdered wife is titled “The Dead Woman” and the case the narrator recounts in that chapter is called “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die.” Likewise, when we learn that the name squawked about Lemaigne by the mysterious Crow is not its own, but that of the murderer Ochsard is hunting, the chapter is titled “The Name” and the nested case file is called “A Word is a Word,” which traces the name of another character’s illustrious yet dysfunctional family.


There? Got a better grasp on the ins and outs of framing stories and the nested tales they contain? Take a look at your own work-in-progress and I’ll bet you’ll find at least a flashback or bit of exposition that qualify as stories within a story. With a fresh look, and a few techniques, you could sharpen their edges and bring out their powerful potential!


1 Definition verb 5.

2 Definition verb 1 & 2.

3 One could argue that this is an invisible aspect of every piece of fiction, in that even a “third-person omniscient” narrator is really a character whose editorial choice of detail tells a story around the main story.

For example, Tolkien’s overwhelmingly third-person narrator nevertheless slips a little first-person commentary into his books: “[Hobbits] were, as a rule, shy of ‘the Big Folk’, as they call us, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.” If a voice-conscious editor had replaced “now they avoid us” with “now they avoid humans” would the framing of the main story within a larger story (of which the reader and narrator are part) be altered? Not really.

4 Every long title needs a short form. Crow is taken, and TCATK seems clumsy, so Kinnebeck it is!

5 Even though it’s easier to keep your bearings in the single-frame story, I still find the resurfacing of the frame story in The Princess Bride jarring, even though I’ve seen the film several times. I just want to edit Columbo and Wonder Years out of it altogether.


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  1. Cassandra, it was my Top Five. I had two other pointers that were about format and font, and how to distinguish the nested tales using them… I decided they weren’t really universally relevant, so the best five of seven?

    Janie, do you mean when and where can you get The Crow and the Kinnebeck?

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